The vinyl: along its road by Claire Coriat

Posted: October 8, 2011 by klaire1990 in 2011

THE VINYL: ALONG ITS ROAD

The vinyl. The vinyl alludes to images. Images of a black circle. A black circle that turns and turns. Turns and produces this typical sound. This loved typical sound, not digital. Little Amélie Poulain wanted vinyls to be made as crepes. Delicious crepes. Delicious sound. Who said that vinyls were dead? We want more! We’re still hungry!

Invention and technology

The invention and the evolution of the commonly known “vinyl” can’t be explained without coming back to the second half of the nineteenth century. In 1877 Thomas Alva Edison created a sound device, the phonograph. This object was particularly innovative not because of its ability to record sounds but because it could also and overall reproduce them. This was totally new, none of the previous devices allowed that, not even the French one, the phonautograph. The mechanism worked the following way: the voice created a vibration that was received by the diaphragm of the device and then transmitted to the stylus which marked the vibration into the foil. When the stylus was put again at the beginning and the cylinder started to turn, the sound could be heard.

The support was originally foil paper but some years later, for technique improvement as well as commercial reasons, Edison developed the hollow wax cylinder as a new recorder support. While Edison was working on his phonograph, another inventor, Emile Berliner patented his gramophone, which, as Edison’s work, also allowed both the recording and reproduction of the sound. But while Edison’s purpose for his device was to create individual and single records, Berliner had commercial aspirations and wanted to produce a lot of copies of a same product. For this intention he developed a disc of zinc that finally was made of shellac for better use.

 

At this point, the longest record you could achieve in a 78s disc was not more than four minutes. Just time enough to listen to a song…or maybe not. In the first half of the twentieth century classical music was one of the most popular kind of music, and there’s no need to remind that a piece of classical music has a longer duration than the recording capacity of the discs. But then, on June 18th of 1948, Columbia Pictures presented its new and revolutionary creation: the LP. In order to emphasized the impact of their new proposal, the president of the company, Edward Wallerstein, started playing a 78s. It was a classical music piece and after four minutes the music stopped, as everyone expected. He then took an LP and placed the needle on. The same symphony, during the four first minutes nothing strange, but then something happened: the music didn’t stop! The audience could listen to the masterpiece during twenty-two and a half minutes. This was such a revolution that during a few moments after the ending of the music the public could barely speak or applause or does anything else. After this momentary silence, innumerable questions and doubts started. How did that happened? In what did the technique consist to obtain such a result? What was the magical change? First of all, and now comes this famous designation for LPs discs as “vinyls”, this new device was made of a different material, of vinyl. This was more flexible than the shellac and “unbreakable”. The vinyl material offered the possibility to increase the number of grooves per inch and as a result to slow down the speed of play. The Colombia’s disc was a 331/3  r.p.m record, and it was 12 inches large. During the presentation the audience could also observe that the quality was improved and that the contact between the needle and the disc was nearly quiet. Another positive point of the new vinyl record was that in comparison to the shellac disc it was so much lighter and so much durable. Indeed, the 78s was quite fragile and breakable. The vinyl as we said was kind of resistant but its quality could go down if the consumer touched it too much. “Try not to scratch the surface of the LP” seems to say Travis Elborough’s mother at the beginning of his book The Vinyl Count down (2009).

The vinyl’s expansion

As we are more interested in this essay to see and understand the revival of the vinyl we are not going to expand a lot this section, just a few points.

A year later after the launch of the 331/3 r.p.m microgroove LP Columbia’s rival, RCA Victor, proposed the 45 r.p.m which was nearly half size of the Columbia’s disc (seven-inch against twelve-inch). It was the favourite for pop records but the two of them managed to coexist. Although, Columbia quickly launched a 331/3 r.p.m of seven inches large.

It is interesting to speak briefly about two situations that happened during the first few years of the LPs. Let’s mention jazz first. With the 78s that only allowed four minutes of record, the preparation of a piece of music was a need, and very rigid. With the LP the musicians had time to improvise, to really play this music of freedom. As Sartre said jazz music speaks to “the best part of you, the most unfeeling and most free”.

Also during the fifties, the comedy genre continued to expand, but television and radios didn’t allow all types of humour, that is they didn’t permit humour that could go a bit against both their own interest or that of their advertisers. LPs were so immediately seen as an alternative to diffuse satirical and humoristic messages that were kind of censured in the media.

The vinyl continued during some decades its progression; it had been the record support of all the best considered artists of the second half of the twentieth century, and from all backgrounds and styles: The Rolling Stones, Benny Goodman, The Doors, Frank Sinatra, The Beatles, Beach Boys, or Eric Clapton.

(Riders on the Storm, The Doors 1971)

We can also add that the development of the vinyl had been helped by the increasing emergence of musical magazines like the still famous Rolling Stones, which started selling in 1967.

The decline

If 1978 was an extraordinary year (with hits such as Saturday night fever or Grease), for a lot of companies in the industry 1979 was a complete disaster: “in the States, sales of LPs fell by fifth” (Travis Elborough, 2009). It is known that 1979 was the year of the worldwide second fuel crisis and that it affected the economy of different countries and of their citizens; but this was not maybe the main reason of the drop of sales of LPs. There was another reason, and it was technological one that was going to become a main rival.  Indeed, if before the young audience spend her savings in buying LPs, now they were attracted also by the gaming consoles and video recorders, as Travis Elborough says in his book. Also another technology came out, and it was crucial: the possibility to have your music with you wherever you were, was now possible. Sony was the company that opened this market proposing in 1979 its walkman, a portable cassette, in Japan; it was a complete success, even above the expectations. In the US they introduced this device firstly with the name of “Soundabout” but from the moment they decided to switch to “walkman” the sales increased a lot and it became so popular that “by 1981,  “Walkman” was already listed in the French dictionary Le petit Larousse” (Travis Elborough, 2009).  The walkman also introduced a complete private music, that only your ears could listen too in that moment: “The walkman enable its user to take music wherever they go and exclude the external world and other human beings” (Michael Chanan, 1995). As we are speaking about the walkman we can mentioned that another factor that pulled the consumer to the walkman maybe was that the cassette, before more expensive than an LP, was now much cheaper. Furthermore during the seventies a “new” musical movement started to take importance and presence in this panorama: hip-hop and rap that represented a protest against the lack of resources of districts like Harlem or the Bronx. This music wasn’t firstly recorded on LPs, no. This music was on cassettes, because in the moment of its emergence it wasn’t considered maybe as worthy music. But when some companies saw the commercial potential of this music, rap started to be on vinyls (a rap disc was even one of the best sales of a company, REO). Even though this kind of music continued to be more on cassettes than on vinyls, because it was also easiest to home-self records. The vinyl was more reserved to DJs by cultural practice. It is interesting to notice that from the early eighties the LP started to disappear in the east world; in the west because of rock, pop and DJ’s music it survived more time.

During the seventies already a word echoed: digital. The command of the binary code permitted the capture of sound in its digital form in micro-processing chips support.  The main difference between analogue (cassettes or vinyls are analogue for example) and digital is that there’s a physical trace in analogue devices (a groove in the vinyl simulating a wave) while in a digital one like the CD it’s only numerical information.

Sony and Philips worked together to carry out the new device, which was going to be the compact disc, or in other terms the CD. In 1979 they realized a first sample of the possibilities of the CD and in 1983 it was in the Japanese stores. But as it coincided with a bad year for the record industry it hadn’t been sold very well. One year late it appeared in European and US markets; 1984 was a year of raise for the global economy (omitting the case of the English miners under Thatcher’s government) and it achieved better results than in Japan one year before. Even though the CD has been especially designed for classical music listening (because of its suppose better quality of sound compare to other devices) the first produced one was an Abba’s album (The visitors) and so it went on, all genres were put on CD (and classical music one of the most). Another improvement of the CD in comparison to the LP was that it offered a larger dynamic range: 96 decibels for the CD against 70 in the vinyl (Travis Elborough, 2009). Because of the effect of a better sound and a strategic campaign all around it (re-issue and added bonus like new songs) a lot of consumers had been buying the CD version of an album they’d already had at home, even though in the beginning of the compact disc its price was the double of a vinyl. The industry message to the audience was quite easy, as Roy Sucker says in Wax trash and vinyl treasures (2010), “CDs [improve] fidelity while requiring less maintenance”.  Indeed with the arrival of the CDs and of the future “multi-tasking” generation the “vinyl practice” (that is admire the cover, taking off and put the LP in the record-player carefully, place the needle, etc.) was bit by bit abandoned because the CDs were more easy and faster to use.

It’s alive! Hey guys! Vinyl is alive!

At the end of the eighties, the vinyl was a dead format for a lot of people, definitely dead. But surprisingly, in the middle of the nineties, the vinyl started its come-back: “In the US market, the number of vinyls albums sold nearly doubled to 2.2 millions in 1995” (Roy Shuker, 2010). There are many reasons for this return at the forefront. During the nineties and the twenty-first century the development of the mp3 and its success especially within the young audience has undermined CD’s popularity. Furthermore, the platforms of downloading (like Limewire, Emule), websites as YouTube, or streaming applications as Spotify have increased this attitude, and the one turned to free and illegal consumption of artistic products. But, in fact, not of all the products. Indeed we can observe a come-back to “the true sound” we could say; the consumer is tempted to listen again to the real music and its particular texture: the vinyl sound is richer. In addition, an LP was no just music, it was also visual art: the covers of vinyls were part of the charm of this device, some of them were considered as art with a big A. If we compare with the covers of CDs, they had never had this visual attraction for the consumer as Travis Elborough mentions. “You just can’t get the same image, or feeling, on a CD package” says a collector in a quote in George Plasketes’s book Romancing the record: The Vinyl De-Evolution and Subcultural Evolution. Also, in relation to what we just said, there’s a kind of nostalgic feeling in the air: “People come back for what they grew up with. […] You see their faces light up and they say, ‘Go, I can’t believe I found this’” said Jim Richardson.

Another reason, and it’s in relation with the illegal downloading, there’s an abuse of copyright because of the digital easiness: it is so much easier to do a perfect copy of a digital product using digital technology than of a vinyl with the technology of this period. So the use of vinyl from some artists for their albums it’s, in addition to the love of LP’s sound, a claim illegal copies.

Can vinyls interact?

It is important to try to discuss the possible interactive aspect of the vinyl. Two situations can be mentioned.

Internet is the archetypal interactive medium. People communicate through it, people share, people explore, people exchange. And there’s no exception, not even for vinyls. By now, LP’s record-plays can be connected to the computer and so its content can be passed into it. Using some kind of software you convert your songs into mp3. Is it not maybe a real interaction but the “consumer” can modify, alter its content: as a song is converted into mp3 it can be modified by the use of audio-edition programs, or sent to another person so they become the subject of a interaction between two people.

The second circumstance where we can relate vinyls and interaction is when we are speaking about DJs. Indeed DJs used vinyls to mix; they also alter and combine them in order to create their own personal sound. Although, the vinyls are kind of the link between the DJ and its public during parties.

 

Collecting

We cannot speak about vinyl’s revival without speaking about collecting.

Since the moment Edison invented his phonograph, Record collectors appeared even if they really started to be a big group by the forties. There were mostly 78 discs collectors, but the cylinders were also wanted objects. As every collector, record collectors have in themselves the shiver of the chase of the rarity, the desire to have more and more and complete “categories”, and an implication on keeping safe our culture from time pass. This collecting practice was beneficiated by the emergence during the same period of places related to music: record clubs and societies, sites of acquisition (shops specialized now on in music, second hand market…), music press (The Gramophone for example). After the arrival of the 33 and 45 rpm, the 78s disappeared on its “normal” use but found a royal second life into the hands of the collectors. With the passage of time the interest in this “old disc” and in its record-player (the gramophone) has even increased. In the beginning of the record collection “history”, the collectors were massively persons who lived the 78s era but from the late sixties, seventies a new generation get fond of the 78s. In a survey done in 1980 we can appreciate their importance within the 78s collectors: in the US 32 per cent of the collectors “were not old enough to remember the 78 era” (Roy Shuker, 2010). These young collectors musical are attracted by the authenticity and by kind of nostalgic flavour brought by the 78s. The same scenario is happening nowadays with vinyls as we had explained above. As Roy Shuker says, vinyls are treasures.

Claire Coriat

References

Roy, Shuker. 2010, Wax trashes and vinyls treasures: Record collecting as a social practice, Ashgate, Burlington.

Elborough, Travis. 2009, The vinyl countdown: the album from LP to iPod and back again, Soft Skull Press, Brooklyn.

Chanan, Michael. 1995, Repeated takes : a short history of recording and its effects on music, Verso, London-NY.

Plasketes, G., Romancing the record: The Vinyl De-Evolution and Subcultural Evolution, viewed 17 September 2011, < http://content.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.lib.uts.edu.au/pdf25_26/pdf/1992/JPC/01Jun92/9209212086.pdf?T=P&P=AN&K=9209212086&S=R&D=s3h&EbscoContent=dGJyMNHX8kSep7U40dvuOLCmr0meprRSr6i4TbaWxWXS&ContentCustomer=dGJyMPGqtlCvqbJLuePfgeyx44Dt6fIA&gt;

Gronow, P. Saunio, I. 1998, , An International history of the recording industry, viewed 17 September 2011, < http://books.google.com/books?hl=es&lr=&id=paPRxPJ7jjEC&oi=fnd&pg=PR6&dq=gramaphone+history+record&ots=u1JaePvoxw&sig=QpSb0-Z1x7juIah3bbUm1xOTjVM#v=onepage&q&f=false&gt;

Millard, A.J. 2005, , America on record: a history of recorded sound, viewed 17 September 2011, < http://books.google.com/books?id=Tmx1064W5JwC&dq=history+of+the+vinyl+record&lr=&hl=es&source=gbs_navlinks_s&gt;

Demets, J. 2009, , Le marché du vinyl, un sillon à creuser?, viewed 17 September 2011, < http://www.evene.fr/musique/actualite/marche-vinyle-cd-disque-2018.php&gt;

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